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PTA Comunitarios: A Fresh Twist on Family Engagement

Sep 27, 2017, 10:54 AM

In the heart of south Texas, PTA participation among Hispanic families is thriving thanks to a process that respects everyone’s opinion, and makes a point of seeking out parents who have been previously excluded or underserved.

PTA Comunitarios have been successful in gathering family leaders in Texas’ poorest communities. Developed by the Intercultrual Development Research Association, the comunitario approach is an innovation for parent organizations and also for school-family-community collaborations. Instead of being school-based, the roots are in ‘colonias’, unincorporated communities, in south Texas. Yet it is probably very close to the intentions and actions of the founders of PTA over a hundred years ago.

Community-based organizations sponsor and collaborate with schools to establish and maintain PTA Comunitarios. Collaboration includes co-planning, sharing in responsibilities for outreach and conducting ongoing activities to improve education in their neighborhood public schools. Connections are established with schools attended by the children of the members although the PTA Comunitario keeps an independent and separate identity.

Meetings and activities are conducted primarily in Spanish. Educational information is simplified and translated but not dumbed-down. Families are addressed as intelligent, capable and wanting the very best education for their children. The idea that parents don’t care about education is a myth. When families are treated with dignity and respect, they become the strongest long-term advocates for a quality public education for all children.

In PTA Comunitarios, family leadership in education takes the place of traditional parent volunteerism and fundraising. Family leaders in marginalized neighborhoods examine data on how their own children, and children across the region, are doing and partner with their schools to expand educational opportunity.

The organization follows the essential elements of establishing a formal PTA, and it elects officers who hold monthly membership meetings and pay the required dues. Leaders are elected from the participating families regardless of formal education, class or language capabilities. The barebones PTA structure provides a framework, but doesn’t discourage parents who may be hesitant to get involved in a full-fledge parent-teacher group.

Meetings include public school educational information and actionable data that leads to projects carried out by the membership. IDRA developed ‘OurSchool’ an online bilingual data portal, http://www.idra.org/ourschool/ that has served as a source for school transformation projects.

That first cohort of 35 families report that all of their children, mostly children learning English as a second language, who were in high school and scheduled to complete their studies, graduated and those of college age went on to higher education.

There are now 75 PTA Comunitario families working with leaders in one school district to monitor the academic success of their children and other neighborhood children. Based on this success, in late 2012, IDRA was selected by the U.S. Department of Education to expand development of the PTA Comunitario model in five communities in central and south Texas, through the i3 Initiative.

6 Key Characteristics of a PTA Comunitario:

  • Meetings are held in the language of the community participating.
  • Meetings are highly participatory and small group discussions are part of each session.
  • Projects and activities emerge from the actionable data presented.
  • Multiple opportunities for leadership are offered and many group tasks are taken on by English-learning individuals with limited formal education.
  • The PTA does not take on the needs and concerns of individual families but deals with issues and challenges that affect the whole community, the whole campus or that have significant impact on many students.
  • Intensive home-outreach and transportation networks are the life-blood of the group that help strengthen inter-family ties and also provide the support needed by families.

Aurelio M. Montemayor is a senior education associate for Intercultural Development Research Association. His career in education spans four decades and has included teaching at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. He currently serves on the National PTA Field Services Committee and served as a national PTA board member from 2006 – 2010.